Question 2: Simple,Plausable,and Wrong

October 28, 2016
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By Jacob Oliveira, (Ludlow), President, MA Association of School Committees, and Mary Bourque, (Chelsea), President, MA Association of School Superintendents

The solution proposed by Question 2 is, to use H.L. Mencken’s phrase, simple, plausible, and wrong because it ignores other badly needed changes in charter policy and leaves students in district schools victims in its wake.

What is wrong, is the funding formula. Recent editorials and political advertisements have argued both ways on whether charter schools take or generate money for the public schools. Losing a child or two over several classrooms throughout a district does not mean that a district can cut its budget to accommodate the reduction. The sending district receives a reimbursement to manage the revenue reduction that is spread out over five years. Truth be told, it has been four years since this offset has been fully funded. This basic misunderstanding of district budgeting is at the core of much of the confusion.

What is plausible, are the recommendations made by the Foundation Budget Review Commission.  A bipartisan commission of educators, legislators and business members studied the adequacy of school funding last year. The findings indicated that the state is underfunding K-12 education by $1 billion in the foundation budget. This budgeting challenge, creates even more difficulties for districts. Advanced coursework, athletics, transportation, enrichment and more have been on the chopping block in district after district over the past number of years. Too many districts are struggling to provide the support services children need in mental and emotional health. Last year’s Foundation Budget Reform Commission laid out the picture clearly. Real financial reform, not only of charter reimbursements but of education funding as a whole, is but one of many needed before there should be any discussion of lifting the cap on charter schools.

What is simple, is to create an accountability system on the local level. The difference in the children attending district and charter schools must end. A requirement that charter schools reflect the demographics of sending districts exists in current law, but it has no teeth. For a charter to draw from districts with a high rate of second language learners and have none itself, or for a charter to speak of an open lottery but never draw a high need special education students demonstrates the problem. This is compounded by the state’s accountability system, which implicitly pits districts against district, school against school, so long as performance is valued over the growth students’ gain from their district. Enrollment and retention measures must have teeth, and the accountability system must measure what school systems add to their students, not simply measure where their students come from.

Finally, the separation of chartering and funding is the source of much of what ails this system. The Board of Education grants charters; the state does or does not fund reimbursement; local districts pay the price. This separation must end. As the Suffolk Superior Court found in its dismissal this week of Doe v. Peyser:

This decision – how to allocate public education choices amongst the multitude of possible types – is best left to those elected to make those choices to be carried out by those educated and experienced to do so.

Those “elected and experienced” include not only the legislators who have made funding decisions regarding state aid; it also includes local school committee members. Local school committees are charged with transparently allocating local funds in education. Before any increase of the charter cap can be considered, charter schools must be made locally accountable to their democratically accountable school committees and the citizens in communities from which they take their students.

Only when true reform takes place can we be certain that all schools are fulfilling their role: educating all students to be effective citizens in a democracy.